Saturday, April 10, 2021

Watches and Wonders: New Explorer 36mm




Explorer Returns to 36mm Size


To me the biggest surprise of this year's Rolex announcement is the Explorer's return to 36mm. A reduction in size of three millimeters in such an iconic model is not something I would have expected from Rolex, especially not less than a year after it had made both the Submariner and Oyster Perpetual larger.

What made the announcement even more stunning to me is that you rarely see Rolex create a design change to only walk it back a few years later. But this is Rolex saying fashion trends can change fast, and we are not shackled by past decisions.

What we learned also from the Rolex announcement this week—or were reminded rather—is that Rolex is the Michael Jordan of two-tone. After all, it invented two-tone, a signature feature of the brand since 1933, and it's often said that Rolex's number-one selling watch in the world is a two-tone Ladies Datejust.

What is different today is that more and more sports watches are getting the bi-metal treatment—to Rolex purists' chagrin—watches that have long been a staple of their Professional collection. While we take for granted the brand's full-gold Submariner, GMT or Daytona, I could almost feel a collective gasp from the watch community at Baselworld 2019, as if feeling betrayed, when the brand unveiled the two-tone Sea-Dweller. Et tu, Rolexus?

Jose Pereztroika, who has done amazing horological forensic research both for these pages and his blog, Perezcope, pointed out to me after the 45-minute Webex conference with Rolex that we actually have historical precedence: A two-tone Explorer can be traced back to the brand's two-tone Bubbleback.

All watches have their origin story and Rolex’s can be traced back to the so-called Bubbleback. It wasn’t Rolex's first timepiece, but it was quite probably their first breakthrough best-seller, a cornerstone of sorts in the quest to associate the Rolex brand with terms such as reliability, toughness, precision. The Oyster Perpetual is an evolution to the Bubbleback. And of course, the Explorer is an homage to the Oyster Perpetual worn during the numerous Himalayan expeditions and the conquest of Mount Everest.

But for me, the return to the 36mm size, the same size as the original Explorer of 1953, is checking two boxes for Rolex: 

1) Adding a vintage flair to a modern watch, a strategy other brands have long adopted. (Keen eyes will notice the move of the "EXPLORER" text from 6 to 12 o'clock, like in vintage Explorers.)

2) Creating a watch that can be worn both by men and women. (A Rolex rep told me that when it comes to fashion in watches "there is no gender anymore" though she could envision women being drawn to the two-tone Explorer while some men might favor the Explorer II.)

Finally, the last thing that struck me during the Explorer's announcement is that Rolex continues to make improvement because, well, it is Rolex even though no one asked for them. No one had complained about the Chromalight, yet Rolex decided to improve it with this generation of the Explorer and going forward with new models. The new Chromalight makes the blue intensity last longer at night, while during the day the markers and hands will show a brighter white hue. 

A two-tone Explorer at 36mm is so unique in the Rolex line-up that for me it is a watch I will be looking for when it hits the stores as early as April in the U.S.